On a winter night after three years of pandemic, 32 men are sitting around a table for a potluck and a game of imagining new futures.
They’re putting up post-it notes with ideas: a game night, a hike up to Benedict Pond, an afternoon at a museum, looking into Impressionists’ lives in ways that matter to them now.
They feel a stir of energy in a new year and an emergence of social activity after the peak of fear and isolation in Covid. A new community is taking root in Great Barrington — Q-MoB, Queer Men of the Berkshires.
‘There’s a huge need that has been unmet for a long time. People are looking for opportunities to connect with their tribe and feel they belong and that they’re seen.’ — Bart Church
Their first ideas have already turned into action, said Tom Truss and Max Rivinus over coffee at Fuel, and even in these few weeks, the group has grown. The two of them have met people they never knew, and Rivinus has lived here 30 years. Some are longtime locals, and some have moved here within the past few months.
“There are a lot of queer men here,” Truss said, “but they’re in the closet, or they’re at home with their husbands, or they’re escapees from New York City … Some, like Max and me, have chosen to come because they don’t want the city life.”
His old friend Bart Church has moved to the Berkshires this winter and helped spark this movement. Church has lived in many parts of the U.S., and he sees the Berkshires changing rapidly.
About a third of the people at Q-Mob’s first Saturday gathering were newcomers within the last year or two, he said on zoom from his new home in Great Barrington, and their presence has grown, even as reactions to the pandemic have shifted in the past year.
“During Covid, getting out of the city, your life depended on it,” he said. “… I think a lot of people developed the habit of coming up here, and then they realized, I like it up here.”
He has been surprised and impressed at how quickly this group has taken shape. Among the original 32, many are leaders, he said — directors and dancers and choreographers, planners and entrepreneurs.
Rivinus is a garden designer with Penelope and Lloyd in Great Barrington, and Church is Strategic Projects Facilitator for Aztech Geothermal, a company based near Albany, N.Y., and also Q-MoB’s Interim WebMaster.
Truss has many ties in the Berkshires, as an actor, director and choreographer who has held roles anywhere from the New Zealand School of Dance to University of Texas at Austin, and here he works with a broad range of creative places, from WAM Theatre to Berkshire Pulse and the Berkshire Immigrant Center.
And Brian Mikesell, now on the Q-Mob steering committee, is director of the Alumni Library at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. He and his husband, Simon’s Rock Provost and Vice President John Weinstein, have hosted the group’s first game night.
Coming out of the lockdown, Mikesell sees people re-evaluating what they can do locally in the community and how much support they have close by, even for simple things like having a friend to help with a home repair.
He and Truss, Rivinus and Church all describe themselves as a group of like-minded people missing out on their community.
“There’s a huge need that has been unmet for a long time,” Church said. “People are looking for opportunities to connect with their tribe and feel they belong and that they’re seen.”
Since moving here, he has been learning what Truss and Rivinus already knew — how hard it can be to meet new people out in the country.
They laughed as they talked about the challenges of using dating apps in a spread-out rural area, expanding their reach out 50 miles or more. They’ve become fluent at finding meeting places halfway between Great Barrington and Northampton or Albany, they said — ‘We should start a restaurant called Stephentown.’
They and Church and Mikesell have seen the queer men’s community here as fractured and lessened in recent years. Queer hubs have dissipated, they said, even support groups and the few pubs and restaurants known as unofficial meeting places.
‘I looked at the faces in that room, and some had been living here for 20 years, 10 minute’s away. That’s what I’ve found so powerful.’ — Max Rivinus
For their first gathering they brought friends together and reached out to people they knew, and they were shocked at the strength of the response.
“People were so hungry for community,” Church said. “… this is a whole different kind of connection, and it’s important. And you just couldn’t deny it. It was palpable. We were smiling and laughing — everybody was smiling and laughing, because they were among people they found interesting and exciting to be with.”
Rivinus has never belonged to an affinity group like this before. People let down their guard, he said, in a in a way he has never seen. Even meeting for the first time, even with differences in age and background, the group feels to him like a brotherhood.
“I looked at the faces in that room,” he said, “and some had been living here for 20 years, 10 minute’s away. That’s what I’ve found so powerful. … You can feel the love at every one of our events, and people walk in ready to make friends.”
Q-mob begins with activities. Out of that first brain-storming night, they have started half a dozen, all light and quick and easy to organize. They’ve begun with a game night, a hike, potluck dinners and a gathering at a local restaurant. As the season warms, they have plans for arts and culture, starting with a tour at the Clark curated for them.
“It’s like someone going into an amazing library who loves books,” Truss said, imagining the excitement of discovery, ‘I didn’t know this existed.’
And though entertainment and good company will stay at the heart of the group, they are already creating wider outreach and resources. They spoke with respect for Berkshire Stonewall and annual events around Berkshire Pride, and creative places with queer-friendly programming. But they are looking for more.
Pride month can be brilliant in its color and scale and energy, Rivinus said, and Pride events can create community in a larger sense, but he wants an ongoing year-round presence. Seeing people regularly can open the way for intimate connections.
Q-Mob has already formed a mission statement talking about their core values and plans for reaching out into the community, and they are holding conversations around respect and diversity, Mikesell said.
They have outlined a structure for youth, BIPOC, trans and Latinx coordinators, and they know these efforts will take time and continuous commitment, to make sure everyone in the group can take a real, democratic role in leadership.
“We want you to come,” he said. “We want to meet you. We want you to have access to a community that supports you.”
‘We want you to come. We want to meet you. We want you to have access to a community that supports you.’ — Brian Mikesell
In envisioning that community, are responding to a sense of isolation that goes far beyond Covid, Truss said. Living in a society that identifies as some 90 percent heterosexual, LGBTQ folk often don’t see themselves reflected in the people around them.
He thought back to the 1950s, to gay communities forming in Greenwich Village, in the Castro in San Fransisco, Palm Springs, Fort Lauderdale, Provincetown.
“I understand the power and the benefits, and I know the problems with it,” he said — people need places to feel safe and heard and seen.
Rivinus finds a freedom in walking into a room and feeling an instinctive connection with the people around him, he said. As Q-Mob’s youth outreach coordinator, he is meeting with college groups and youth groups and high school LGBTQ groups, and talking with them about how Q-Mob can support what they’re doing.
Church imagines a network of mentors, growing as people are moving to the Berkshires and increasingly working from home.
“We have … people in almost any career that have moved here during Covid,” he said, and who now live here, so you have architects, you have dance and performance professionals … Now you have all these resources that a lot people don’t even know are here …”
“I think that’s more and more true. There’s a lot of senior people doing a lot of work, and it’s rural here, but they’re not just tending their gardens. They’re running things, or they’re making things. And I think creating a way for young people to stay who want to stay is important — because we can’t afford to lose them. … We have to become a vibrant community.”